Do Stem Cells Offer a Cure for ALS?

Stem cell research is providing exciting new information about innovative ways to treat this debilitating disease.

What are stem cells?  Stem cells are what the body uses to create all other cells. They start out as undifferentiated cells, meaning they have the potential to grow into any type of cell the body needs, like blood, skin, or nerve cells. 

Where do stem cells come from?  Stem cells come from several sources including embryos, amniotic fluid, and body tissues in adults and children. 

  • Embryonic stem cells are taken from 4- to 5-day old embryos. These stem cells have the best potential for curing and treating diseases because they're the most versatile and are capable of turning into any other type of cell. They're also the most controversial because they involve use of embryos created (but not implanted in a mother) during in vitro fertilization procedures and donated for research by parents.
  • Amniotic stem cells come from the fluid that surrounds a baby in the uterus, collected through amniocentesis. More research is needed to understand how amniotic stem cells can be used for medical purposes.
  • Adult stem cells are found in bone marrow and other tissues in children and adults as well as in umbilical cord blood and placentas. Research has shown that adult stem cells taken from one part of the body may be able to develop into entirely different cells that can be used to treat diseases.
  • Induced pluripotent stem cells are adult stem cells that have been genetically reprogrammed to create other types of cells that work similarly to embryonic stem cells.  While they're not yet as versatile as embryonic stem cells, they're becoming increasingly important to the medical community for their potential to treat disease without the controversies surrounding embryonic stem cells. 

Can stem cells treat ALS?
Some for-profit clinics have made claims about being able to cure diseases, including ALS, with stem cells. But at this point, there's no evidence to back that up. Several trials are currently underway, however, to learn how stem cell treatments could replace diseased motor neurons (which are the nerve cells damaged in a patient with ALS) and protect healthy motor neurons.

  • Clinical trials at Jerusalem's Hadassah Medical Center and Massachusetts General Hospital are targeting the use of bone marrow stem cells injected directly into the spinal cord for treating ALS.
  • Scientists are studying how embryonic and pluripotent stem cells injected into the spinal cord could become motor neurons, but they have not yet been able to get these stem cells to re-grow neurons and connect to muscle tissue.
  • Other studies are attempting to use stem cells to make astrocytes, cells that support motor neurons so they'll remain healthy and grow.

Stem cell research shows great potential for eventually being able to treat ALS. Progress towards developing a cure is slow paced, however, because scientists are exploring brand new scientific, medical, and ethical frontiers. There's currently no cure, but for patients living with ALS, stem cells are providing a healthy dose of hope. 



Science Daily (Sep. 21, 2011)

Using Bone Marrow to Protect the Brain: Stem Cell Technology Begins Clinical Trial for Lou Gehrig's Disease

ALS Association
Stem Cells and Growth Factors: Separating Hype from Hope
Research Webinar June 19, 2012

Stem Cell Network